Cameroon Native Out To Prove Lightning Does Strikes Twice With Arona Showdown at PRIDE 34

By Aaron Crecy (aaron@thefightnetwork.com)

Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou was merely an afterthought on the PRIDE 33 card in Las Vegas. The Team Quest fighter entered his fight with the highly regarded and vastly experienced Antonio Rogerio Nogueira knowing full well he was brought in to serve as a stepping stone. With just three professional fights on his record—the last a knockout loss in an October 2006 World Extreme Cagefighting event—“the African Assassin” was a complete unknown to most mixed martial arts fans.

Despite the recent loss, Sokoudjou’s mixed martial arts mentor, Dan Henderson, had lobbied former Dream Stage Entertainment chief Nobuyuki Sakakibara to add his pupil to the PRIDE 33 card. Based almost exclusively on Henderson’s recommendation—and an impromptu look at the shirtless Sokoudjou’s well-muscled physique and flowing dreadlocks in DSE’s Los Angeles office—Sakakibara acquiesced.

Though initially slated to face Evangelist “Cyborg” Santos, Sokoudjou soon received a call from DSE inquiring if he would be willing to take on Nogueira. Despite the Brazilian Top Team stalwart’s daunting credentials—he owns victories over Henderson, Kazushi Sakuraba, Alistair Overeem and Kazuhiro Nakamura, and dropped a hotly contested decision to Mauricio “Shogun" Rua—Sokoudjou embraced the opportunity.

“I saw the fight with Nogueira as a chance to make a name for myself,” he said. “I actually felt as though I had an advantage entering the fight, because I was an unknown entity to him. Meanwhile, I had plenty of tape to study, and my coach, Dan Henderson, had been in the ring with him. It gave me a lot of confidence that Dan believed I would win the fight. Even though I knew I was an underdog, I never felt like one.”

Nogueira knew so little about Sokoudjou that he attended his opponent’s public workout at Caesar’s Palace two days prior to the fight. Rather than take umbrage with the intrusion—the workout was intended for fans rather than for fighters to so conspicuously scout their foes—Nogueira’s presence actually fueled Sokoudjou’s confidence.

“I didn’t mind him being there at all,” stated Sokoudjou. “It was a public display, so Rogerio had every right to watch. If anything, it made me believe that he was at least a little worried about me. I took it as a compliment!”

An overwhelming underdog—some odds makers had the line at 16-1 in Nogueira’s favor—Sokoudjou won the February 24 fight with a stunning knockout just 23 seconds into the opening round. The result was undeniable, as Sokoudjou landed a short but powerful left hook that rendered Nogueira unconscious. It was a sudden turn of events that both shocked and titillated the more than 13,000 spectators whom had converged upon the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

Now, another formidable challenge looms for Sokoudjou, (3-1)—a confrontation with Ricardo Arona, (13-4), at PRIDE 34. Like Nogueira, Arona is a highly-ranked 205-pounder from the BTT camp with a long history of success, but with a decidedly different fighting style. While Nogueira possesses a dangerous submission offense, he is also a skilled boxer—it was recently announced that he had qualified for Brazil’s national team in that sport—and is content to trade strikes. Though Arona has displayed some of the fiercest low kicks of any PRIDE fighter, he prefers to take fights to the ground with a powerful double-leg shot.

The Absolute division winner at the 2001 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships, Arona often smothers opponents from the top, maintaining a dominant position and eschewing submissions in favor of strikes.

Ironically, Arona enters the bout knowing little more about Sokoudjou than his teammate did. The brief encounter with Nogueira did not showcase the range of Sokoudjou’s offensive arsenal, nor did it give Arona any indication as to the extent of his opponent’s defensive abilities. Ironically, Sokoudjou is again facing an adversary with whom Henderson is intimately familiar, having lost to Arona by split decision in 2002.

So, who is Sokoudjou? A native of Cameroon, he is a humble, soft-spoken young man who is fluent in English, French and Hom’la, an indigenous regional dialect. While most of his childhood friends played soccer and basketball, Sokoudjou developed a passion for judo and would eventually train with his country’s national team.

In 2001, at the age of 17, he moved to America to pursue advanced judo training, eventually landing in San Diego. That same year, he entered the US Open Judo Championships and proceeded to win the open-weight division title—two years later, he took the bronze medal.

Among Sokoudjou’s many accomplishments in international Judo competition includes a victory over two-time World Champion and 2000 Olympic sliver medalist Shinichi Shinohara of Japan. Due to visa complications, Sokoudjou was unable to return to Cameroon to compete in the 2004 Olympic trials, and he soon turned his turned his focus to the sport of mixed martial arts.

Sokoudjou first met Henderson when a friend took him to the PRIDE fighter’s workout at a high school wrestling room in Temecula, Calif. in late 2004. He proceeded to surprise the two-time Greco Roman Olympian with an array of throws and a formidable takedown defense. After training occasionally with Henderson over the course of the next year, Sokoudjou joined Team Quest in 2006 and committed himself to full-time mixed martial arts training.

After a decision win in his July 2006 MMA debut, a bout in which he fatigued early and fought tentatively, Sokoudjou stepped up his intensity in the gym. Just three weeks later, he won his second professional fight via TKO in the first round. Sokoudjou’s next contest was the WEC loss, a brief back-and-forth stand-up encounter with Glover Teixeira.

“I learned more from the loss than I did from my two previous wins,” admitted Sokoudjou. “In particular, I learned that I need to focus on my strengths and not let my emotions take over. You couldn’t tell from the Nogueira fight, but I have really been working on incorporating more of my judo skills into my MMA game. While I enjoy striking, I am still learning and improving my Muay Thai skills.”

Sokoudjou has been working diligently with Team Quest striking coach Shawn Tompkins, and credits him for the improvement in his striking. Tompkins began working with Team Quest in 2006 and relocated from London, Ontario to Henderson’s Murrieta, Calif., gym in January. A longtime Bas Rutten protégé, Tompkins was recently named the head coach of the International Fight League’s Los Angeles Anacondas and has developed a slew of world-class fighters, including Chris Horodecki, Mark Hominick, Sam Stout and Krzysztof Soszynski. It is no coincidence that, like Sokoudjou, Henderson’s KO win over Wanderlei Silva at PRIDE 33 also came courtesy of a left hook.

With a training camp that includes Henderson, Tompkins, Jason “Mayhem” Miller, three-time Brazilian Jiu Jitsu world champion Vinicius Magalhaes and Team Quest coach Ryan Parsons, Sokoudjou is intent on proving that his win over Nogueira was no fluke.

“I’m honored to face Ricardo Arona and I’m excited to fight him,” states Sokoudjou. “I’m sure he has some incentive to avenge his teammate’s loss to me, while I have some incentive to avenge Dan’s loss. Although Dan broke his hand against Silva, he’s been in the gym with me very day, coaching me, motivating me and overseeing my workouts. Shawn is one of the best striking coaches in the sport, and I improve every day that I work with him. I believe that I have the best trainers and teammates in the world, and I’m ready for my next big win.”

POSTED -- 04/06/07